Before Democrats swept off-year elections in Virginia and elsewhere around the country this week, Republicans had convinced themselves that making enormously regressive, unpopular changes to the tax code was the key to maintaining their hammerlock on political power.
The reforms themselves, as detailed in House Republican legislation, are almost comically rapacious. They partially finance the cost of trillions and trillions of dollars in tax cuts for corporations and wealthy heirs and heiresses in a few ways, but most transparently by limiting personal exemptions and eliminating specific tax benefits that bolster the after-tax incomes of middle- and upper-middle-class workers.
There are some offsetting benefits in the bill for middle-class families, but most are temporary. Ivanka Trump’s tax cut would be permanent. Millions of middle-income households will ultimately pay higher taxes under the Republican bill than they do today so that Donald Trump’s children can pay less in taxes every year, then inherit their father’s estate tax-free. One mechanism by which working people will pay for this windfall is by eliminating the deductibility of state and local taxes, which currently benefits the kind of voters who just pummeled Republicans in Northern Virginia, and who could cost Republicans control of the House next year, if turnout patterns don’t change.
And yet, with Tuesday election behind them, Republicans continue to insist that making these same, enormously regressive, unpopular changes to the tax code is the best move available to them.
The truly best move available to them would be to travel back in time and not stake so much credibility on a promise to pass a toxic, partisan tax bill. A time machine would allow them to cut their losses and quietly slink away from all of their most unpopular legislative commitments. They could presumably also just decide not to pass a politically toxic tax bill now, and move on to more popular ideas.
But there’s probably something to the GOP’s instinct to charge ahead, if they believe the only alternative is getting caught trying-but-failing to pass major legislation once again, in humiliating fashion. And the one thing they have going for them is that liberals have thus far not created a sense of urgency around the GOP tax bill the way they did around earlier GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare—even though the two initiatives have a lot in common.
Perhaps the most striking exit-poll finding in the Virginia governor’s race last night was the defining role health care played in motivating voters, and it was overwhelmingly to the detriment of the GOP. Of issues including gun policy, health care, abortion, immigration and taxes, a 37 percent plurality of respondents said health care “mattered most” in determining their votes, and of those respondents, 78 percent went for Democrat Ralph Northam.
It is possible that these numbers would have been even bleaker for Republicans if their attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act had succeeded—but they pretty closely reflect the unpopularity of the various Republican health care repeal bills Congress considered, even though none of them passed.
The worst possible strategic approach available to Republicans appears to be “try hard to pass horribly unpopular bills, fail spectacularly, then dissolve into recriminations.” It inspires the kind of enormous backlash you’d expect if the bills actually became law, without galvanizing any partisans on the other side.
This is what Republicans did in the health care fight, and they are on the verge of replicating it with their terrible tax bill. As in the health care fight, Republicans are being as opaque as possible about their intentions, and lying to the public about the effects their legislation will have on people’s lives.
Bookmark this Ryan radio quote on tax reform today: “even though there’s a lot of false information out there, everybody gets a tax cut”
— Erik Wasson (@elwasson) November 8, 2017
But the resistance to the Republican tax bill isn’t yet shaping up to be as intense as the resistance to Obamacare repeal was. The intensity will rise if and when Republicans begin to cast votes on legislation, and people start to learn that their taxes might go up, purely to benefit the rich. But even then, the opposition may lack the urgency Democrats felt to beat back Obamacare repeal, because, for better or worse, liberals don’t feel the same pride of authorship over the tax code as they do over the ACA.
The ACA repeal push represented an effort to erase recent, hard-won liberal gains in a fight for universal health care that goes back decades, and the legislative legacy of the first black president of the United States. Obamacare’s health insurance expansion additionally has more direct, personal, life-or-death implications than do marginal changes to the after-tax income of people who (for the most part) already have insurance. For these reasons, liberal activists have not mobilized to stop the tax bill as aggressively as they mobilized to stop the American Health Care Act, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, and the Graham-Cassidy bill. It would be a shame if that enthusiasm gap translated into the difference between the poisonous Republican tax bill passing, and the Republicans branding themselves with a poisonous tax bill, that ultimately goes nowhere.